Sunday, October 6, 2013

Top Gear Season 5 Episode 5

Just watched Top Gear S5 Ep.5 - the race from the Top Gear studio to Verbier, Switzerland. Calling cheating.

Driving is est. 10h, 47 mins: https://www.google.com/maps/preview#!data=!4m18!3m17!1m5!1sBBC+Top+Gear%2C+White+City%2C+Second+Floor+A%2C+Energy+Centre%2C+Media+Centre%2C+201+Wood+Ln%2C+London%2C+Greater+London+W12+7TQ%2C+United+Kingdom!2s0x48760fd63aa070a9%3A0x4da98537053f9649!3m2!3d51.514057!4d-0.227065!1m1!1sVerbier%2C+Bagnes%2C+Switzerland!3m8!1m3!1d26314!2d-122.2887505!3d37.863474!3m2!1i1440!2i802!4f13.1&fid=0

While transit should be around 8-9 hours:
Studio to LHR: 2hr, 47 mins
https://www.google.com/maps/preview#!data=!1m4!1m3!1d333478!2d-0.53665!3d51.2955625!2m1!1e3!4m19!3m18!1m1!1sTop+Gear+Test+Track!1m5!1sHeathrow+Airport%2C+Terminal+1%2C+Greater+London+TW6+1AP%2C+United+Kingdom!2s0x48767234cdc56de9%3A0x8fe7535543f64167!3m2!3d51.47238!4d-0.45094!2e3!3m8!1m3!1d30230!2d-0.3149042!3d51.4914197!3m2!1i1440!2i802!4f13.1&fid=0i7

LHR to GVA: 1hr, 35 mins (add an hour for flight-related delays e.g. security - 2 hr 35 mins)
http://www.hipmunk.com/flights/LHR-to-GVA#!dates=Oct16p2&pax=1

GVA to Verbier: 3hr, 4 mins
https://www.google.com/maps/preview#!data=!4m23!3m22!1m5!1sGen%C3%A8ve+A%C3%A9roport%2C+1218+Grand-Saconnex%2C+Switzerland!2s0x478c6480ae239337%3A0xe511a9f24eb8a630!3m2!3d46.229334!4d6.106585!1m5!1sVerbier%2C+Bagnes%2C+Switzerland!2s0x478ecfcef7a6a973%3A0xffde3e9c0d278891!3m2!3d46.0960759!4d7.2288752!2e3!3m8!1m3!1d368937!2d6.6521224!3d46.227853!3m2!1i1440!2i802!4f13.1&fid=0

For a total of 9 hrs, 25 mins. That's a full hour faster than the estimated driving time.

At least on paper, public transport should have won. I guess that makes the Scaglietti a really fast car. Perhaps we should be surprised Clarkson only got one speeding ticket!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Internet Communicator

It all started when I thought about WiFi calling.

WiFi calling is the relatively simple idea that when I’m at home, where my carrier’s signal doesn’t penetrate, I’m still able to access the Internet on my smartphone using WiFi; therefore, I should also be able to make and receive voice calls. It’s essentially the merging of VOIP with traditional cell phone calling services.

So far, the closest carriers have come is the femtocell - a device that plugs into your home router and acts as a mini cell tower for your home. However, femtocells only make sense when the phones they’re hosting don’t have internet access; that is, dumphones. Femtocells are a relic of the bygone era before the Internet-connected smartphone era ushered in by Apple five years ago with the original iPhone.

The logical next step in the modern world is the ability to access this cell phone calling network over WiFi. The iPhone’s revolution of phones was that is relegated the “phone’s” status from the entire device to just one of many apps. Consider the Motorola RAZR, the last great dumbphone. Sure, it may have had some basic data capabilities, but spend three seconds looking at the phone at you can immediately tell the device was made for calling, and to a lesser extent texting. Even the smartphone of that era, the mighty BlackBerry, was first and foremost a phone. The then-powerful email capabilities were just something that Mike Lazaridis hacked onto a phone in a dumbphone era. The iPhone threw all of this out. It was, first and foremost, a pocket-sized computer. It’s name is somewhat misleading in this regard -- being a phone is just one of the myriad components of the iPhone. It’s no different than the YouTube app, or the copy of Angry Birds you downloaded. It’s an app that happens to use a set of APIs that connect to the carriers’ voice calling services.

Once Skype came to the iPhone, this became clear -- it’s possible to ignore the phone application and use Skype for all calls. There’s even video calling. But wait -- all Skype uses, as an app, is data. Voice and Skype is data. Video on Skype is data. It’s all just data, and it doesn’t matter at all whether that data is routed through a WiFi connection or over EDGE/3G/LTE. Why should the app that routes calls through my carrier’s voice service be any different?

We’re now beyond the concept of WiFi calling. In fact, the scenario I’ve just described is just VOIP, plain and simple. Phones have IP connections, so it follows that they support VOIP. Why attempt to crudely merge VOIP with traditional phone service and call it WiFi calling when it’s just as easy to do away with the traditional phone service entirely? Carriers have been whining for ages about the Great Bandwith Shortage. Everything Over IP is the solution. Consider New York Penn Station. There are dozens of train platforms, and they’re all allocated to a specific train operator. This leads to situations where one train operator is scrambling to manage more trains than he or she has platforms while another train operator has several platforms available and sitting unused. The pre-allocation of the station’s platform resource causes problems in load management. Similarly, pre-allocating certain parts of wireless spectrum to mobile data, and other parts to voice calling, isn’t going to help manage the limited spectrum resource that’s available.

This idea is called going “over the top”. It’s a realization that any and all communication that people would ever want to do with each other -- whether it be through voice, video, webpage, or YouTube -- can be represented as a data packet that’s sent over the Internet. Therefore, it follows that the only connection necessary to anyone is an Internet connection.

Let me paint a picture. Microsoft just bought Skype. So, all Microsoft has to do to create this Internet Communicator is replace the phone app with Skype and sell their Windows Phones as phone-sized tablets with mobile data connections. Skype supports phone numbers for a nominal fee, so everyone would still be able to access everyone else through the traditional phone number system that we’re all accustomed to. And think about it -- Skype supports video. So, instantly Microsoft now has support for video calling between phone numbers, using Skype as the backend. Skype supports IM too -- this would become the phone’s texting/SMS service. Add in a $30/month data plan from your favorite carrier, and boom, a fully featured Internet Communicator phone for a fraction of the price you’re paying your carrier now.

Google could easily do this as well. They already support free calling to the US and Canada from GMail using Google Voice. They support video calling in Google Plus Hangouts (as well as GMail video calls). Google Voice supports SMS, and Google Talk could be integrated in. Instantly, all of Google’s services become integrated on this new device -- the Internet Communicator. Note that Google Voice supports telephone numbers -- so this system, too, would be compatible with the others through the good old telephone number system.

Apple, too, could reach this goal of the Internet Communicator. iMessage is texting, and FaceTime already supports video calls. Audio-only FaceTime and phone number assignment to Apple users are all that separate Apple from the Internet Communicator.

The Internet Communicator works because the age-old interface of phone numbers is preserved. Different services -- Skype, Google Voice, and FaceTime in my examples -- implement this phone number interface to provide communication. Carriers needn’t be left out, either; they would be free to create their own apps that provide this same functionality.

The Internet Communicator is the logical end to the revolution that started with the iPhone, five years ago. It’s within our reach now. Someone’s just got to do it.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

TEDxBerkeley


So, a couple weeks ago, I volunteered at TEDxBerkeley. It was not what I expected.
What I expected was a great showcasing of the latest and greatest things in the world from the smartest researchers on the planet. You see, every TED talk I had ever seen up until TEDxBerkeley was about this amazing new idea or technology that some researcher had cobbled together that is going to change the way we live. Cue Justin Hall-Tripping’s “Freeing Energy From The Grid” for a great example. TED talks like these are about cool new stuff! These TED talks showcase the amazing ability of humans to innovate ourselves out of any corner (in Justin Hall-Tripping’s case, this is the traditional energy grid)
It turned out that I had only been seeing a third of what TED is all about. You see, TED stands for “Technology, Entertainment, and Design.” I’d been stuck in the technology corner without even noticing the great talks that people gave about the latest and greatest in Entertainment and Design.
Entertainment and Design don’t have the same sexy appeal that Technology does. Entertainment and Design aren’t going to save the world, or change the way we use computers, or magically eliminate global warming. Entertainment and Design are about enjoying the present, something only the rich have the luxury to do. Accordingly, tickets for a TED event can run in the thousands of dollars, and only important people are given the opportunity to spend their disposable income on the extravaganza. It should come as no surprise to anyone, then, that TED talks are generally considered to be the realm of elitists egomaniacs who think they’re going to save the world.
Enter ted.com and the TEDx events. Now, anyone can put together a TED event, and have people come give inspiring talks. On ted.com, anyone, even those who don’t have the gravitas to be invited to a TED talk, can still gain access to the great treasure trove of good ideas that real people are working on. These two forces combine to make TED ubiquitous enough for people to not hate it, and yet classy enough to make invitees drop thousands in an instant for the honor to attend.
The thing about TED events is that they’re not really about the “ideas worth spreading.” They’re actually about the people to whom the ideas are being spread. The whole point is that if a whole bunch of people are willing to drop $100 (or $30 for students) on attending, then they must all be pretty similar because they all value TED talks enough to spend real money on them. It’s one thing for the average Joe to sit at home and watch TED talks online, and it’s another for people to pay money to watch them live, just so that they can meet other people who made the same decision they did.
TEDxBerkeley wasn’t even really about Entertainment or Design. It was about “inspiring innovation.” (the curators’ term, not mine.) That meant that the talks included people whose sole reason for being on stage was that they had a good story to tell. From inspiring people to “pay it forward” to inspiring people to respect another to inspiring people to wriggle around like the ocean (Capacitor’s Okeanos production), everyone had a story to tell, and they each told it in their own way. There were no mind-boggling technological advances, no “next big thing,” no “future of ____.” It was all about the human connection; an advanced version of storytime (there were PowerPoint slides, after all). The stories were good, entertaining, inspiring, and emotional. And that’s (partly) what TED is all about. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Ultraviolet Nightmare



The media companies have done it again. For a while now, media companies sold their home video releases as combo packs with blu-ray discs, DVDs, and the all-important digital copy. Consumers would be able to choose whether they wanted their digital copy to be downloaded from iTunes or Amazon, and there was no attached DRM because the media companies had gotten their hands out of the distribution of the digital copies.

Recently, everything changed.

The media companies ceased this common sense, practical way of digital movie distribution. They decided that they wanted to decrease the value that they would provide to the loyal consumers that buy Blu-Ray discs. They stopped providing iTunes and Amazon download codes for their movies, and switched everything over to the horrible system now known as Ultraviolet.



The way Ultraviolet works is anything but straightforward. To try out this new system, I attempted to download a digital copy of Harry Potter 7 Part 2, which I own as a Blu-Ray combo pack but had yet to redeem a digital copy of. My first step was to visit ultraviolet.flixster.com/harrypotter7part2, where I was asked to create an online account for first the Flixster service, then the Utraviolet service. Then, I was asked to input the standard download code. After this, I was asked to download not the movie, but some Adobe AIR app that would purportedly allow me to download movies to my desktop. Still curious, I followed the steps and installed the app. Inside the app, I finally clicked the download movie button, and performed the routine download wait. When the Flixster app indicated that it had completed the download, I immediately looked for the standard way to grab the file and add it to my iTunes library.

I was stymied. There is literally no way to get the movie out of the application. All you can do is press play, which fires up a clunky video player that I don’t want to be associated with. All in all, this is a horrible solution. However, I did figure that I would be able to find the downloaded file on my computer, which I did download after purchasing a Blu-Ray copy, and add it to my iTunes library unhindered. Sadly, here I was stymied too. It seems that I have gotten too used to DRM-free media that I can add into any ecosystem I wish to add it to. Instead, when I attempted to open the downloaded file in QuickTime Player, I was informed that I was missing the necessary codec to play the file. In short, the Warner Bros. gave me the finger, and I’ve never even met them.


As I mentioned before, it wasn’t like this before. The past two Harry Potter movies have both been released as Blu-Ray combo packs with the digital copy, except those digital copies were given in the format of iTunes downloads. This new system is not only insulting, but it’s detrimental to my experience as a consumer. I don’t want to have to fire up some random app and manage some random account in order to watch digital content. Media companies need to get with the program, and the program is that Apple and Amazon own digital content distribution, and if you’re not compatible with Apple and Amazon, then either you have to get rid of DRM and be completely open, or provide such an amazing experience that people don’t mind leaving their old ecosystem sometimes to access content in this amazing new service. Ultraviolet does neither of these things.


Think about the music industry, which was owned by iTunes and DRM only a couple years ago. Now, companies like Spotify and Rdio have provided a separate, new, experience that has pulled former pirates away from music torrent sites and back to paying for music, albeit in subscription form. Ultraviolet is more likely to push consumers toward piracy rather than pull them back into the light. Therefore, Ultraviolet is the anti-Spotify; while Spotify makes media consumption easier, Ultraviolet is making it harder. It should be easier to pay for media if media companies truly want to combat piracy.

The future of movies is going to be something like Netflix; the problem is that currently the selection on Netflix is so horrible that it’s just not worth it. Movie companies need to move toward the future, where the profits are, rather than try to squeeze money out of people that aren’t buying anyway. Ultraviolet, and DRM in general, only make things harder for people that want to do things right. Movie companies need to realize that paying customers need to be their best friends, because right now customers are being treated like peasants, and while media pirates and torrent sites won’t necessarily welcome new users with open arms, their end product has more value than anything media companies such as Warner Bros. are doing right now.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Greatest Show on Earth


CES is a monument to the tech industry. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people converge on Las Vegas for this celebration of consumer electronics, from no-name manufacturers of USB Hamster Wheels to the cutting edge of the consumer electronics industry. The tech blogs always break out the big guns; celebrated publications such as Engadget (and now The Verge) literally camp out in the parking lot of the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC) and devote their entire crews to coverage of the event.



This massive scale is immediately evident when you walk onto the show floor, as I finally had the opportunity to do this year after several years of obsessively reading CES coverage online. The show floor is literally jam-packed with every tech company anyone could ever think of, covering every sub-industry within consumer electronics imaginable. The show is organized by both these sub-industries and the sponsorship level of the various exhibitors; the marquee companies are generally located in the LVCC Center Hall.
Walking into even the LVCC North Hall, which somewhat evokes the feeling of being an overflow show floor, is a jaw-dropping experience. The sheer size of the exhibit hall makes it easy to be overwhelmed, and even just this one portion of CES could put a number of conferences to shame. This year, the North Hall contained a large contingent of iPhone accessory manufacturers and sound engineering companies. There was an entire row of booths dedicated to just iPhone cases: iPhone cases with built-in extra batteries, built-in bottle openers, and even built-in carbon fiber reinforcing. At the other end of the North Hall were several sound companies, all of which demonstrated their newest speaker and bass designs by building the speakers into supercars. Several Lamborghini, Ferrari, and Audi R8 cars were carefully scattered about the show floor, both within the speaker companies’ booths, and within the booths of the car manufacturers themselves, who were exhibiting their newest car infotainment systems. Even those not interested in the industry would have been awe-inspired by both the number of exhibitors and variety of products, but also by the meticulous design of each booth. There is so much to see that your feet will hurt from all the walking before you know it; my best pieces of advice to future attendees is to get everywhere as early as possible and to wear comfortable shoes.
Even this generous description of the LVCC North Hall would fail to fully capture the nature of the LVCC Center Hall. The cavernous show floor is lit not by lightbulbs, but by the glow from the massive displays in each booth. Almost every marquee tech company has a major presence; from Panasonic and Sharp’s newest TV screens to Intel’s Ultrabooks to Sony’s PS Vita, all the newest products from the tech companies that release products adored across the world are displayed in full marketing regalia. Some of the displays are simply stunning; Samsung’s giant arrangements of SAMOLED HDTVs were especially notable. The planning and presentation of these products is beyond anything you could see at a retail store.
The keynotes, of course, are the highlights of CES, both figuratively and literally. Keynotes help attendees cut through the haze of gadgets by presenting a select few new releases from industry leaders-in other words, highlighting those products. They also are often what attendees can focus on; instead of wandering aimlessly along the endless aisles of gadgets, people can sit and listen to a well-known industry leader explain their newest technology in the equivalent of a State of the Union address. The Intel keynote, by Intel CEO Paul Otellini, featured tech demos of Intel’s newest concept designs, including Ultrabooks and new Intel Chipset powered phones. Microsoft’s keynote, by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and American Idol host Ryan Seacrest, featured demos of Windows 8, new Windows Phones, and Xbox Kinect.
The CES keynotes were remarkably different from keynotes by Apple or even non-CES keynotes by the same companies. Since CES falls at an awkward time of the year, right after the holiday shopping season, consumer electronics companies can’t release brand new products which need to be saved for the back-to-school and holiday shopping seasons, where most consumers spend their electronics budgets. Therefore, CES keynotes turn into an awkward sort of year-in-review presentation where companies avoid releasing groundbreaking products in favor of either raving about their success in the past year or announcing business decisions, such as Intel’s announcement of a strategic partnership with Motorola in the mobile device market. These keynotes stand in sharp contrast to Apple-style keynotes where Apple executives rave about the success of their standing product line before completely revolutionizing it with the classic “one more thing.” CES keynotes lack this glamour.
Of course, this year is Microsoft’s last year at CES. It’s rumored that the CEA wanted Microsoft to compete with other companies for the spot of the main keynote address, and Microsoft wanted to move away from CES anyway to maintain more control over their product release cycle. As a result, Microsoft will no longer exhibit at CES, going from a substantial booth to zero presence. After all, Apple in recent years has almost made a point of releasing new products in the weeks after CES, ostensibly to steal the thunder of their CES-compliant competitors. Therefore, controlling one’s own schedule of public announcements, as Google and Apple do by holding either “special events” and hosting their own developer conferences, has become desirable. Microsoft, of course, hosts its own MIX conference, and would rather not compete for attention when making announcements.
Naysayers foretell that Microsoft’s move away from CES is a harbinger of the growing insignificance of the show, and until I walked onto the show floor to see it for myself, I almost believed them. However, while Microsoft’s move may indicate that new product announcements for popular product lines may be moving away from CES, there are countless products from the industry that debut at CES, which provides a platform for the non-Microsofts of the industry to showcase their newest gear without having to start up their own events and attract visitors to those events. Companies like Panasonic and Sharp have great technology, but no one would pay attention to a conference hosted by these companies. They need impressive displays at CES that catch attendees’ attention to garner interest in their products.
Apple and Google invest a lot of money in their press events and conferences. Of course, these companies don’t have to try hard to attract attendees. On the other hand, smaller companies, and companies with less “sexy” products, have to use marketing teams to attract attendees, which is both labor-intensive and expensive. For them, paying a fee to exhibit at CES with a guaranteed large audience helps them focus on showing attendees their newest products in the best possible light. CES is therefore a convenience that saves a lot of money for many companies.
CES isn’t fading into insignificance. It’s simply morphing and changing with the times. It’s always going to be the biggest, most crowded event in the industry, and attendees will continue coming in droves. Of course, as always there will be products that get lost in the sea of technology. But at least at CES companies can sell their products with massive, impressive displays without worrying about buying attendees as well. CES levels the playing field and pits companies’ marketing teams against each other in a competition for attendee eyeballs. As Steve Ballmer would put it, “Audience, Audience, Audience!”

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Dead Hand of Steve Jobs


Everyone knows that Set Top Boxes for cable providers are merciless energy hogs. These devices use an average of 446 kWh or electricity per year. Yes, that’s more than your fridge. Even more amazing is that a laptop computer, which has several times the processing power of a set top box, uses a fraction of the power. Something is seriously wrong here.
This problem is known as the landlord-tenant problem. The idea is that if you rent an apartment and your electricity bill is taken care of as part of the rent, then you have no economic incentive to conserve energy. More generally, if you’re not the one paying for the electricity, then you have no incentive to conserve it. It’s up to the person paying for the electricity to incentivize you to use less energy. They’re the one with the economic incentive. However, the set top box problem is harder to solve, because the person paying the electricity bill is the customer, and there is no other choice. It’s possible for your landlord to incentivize less energy use through modified rent contracts, but your relationship with your cable provider is absolute. It’s their way or the highway, and you can’t watch TV on the highway.
This isn’t the only problem with TV. The way we consume TV is completely backward; a 1950’s approach to a 2010’s problem. The entire idea of paying someone to deliver content to you should mean that you shouldn’t have to endure advertisements while watching your content. However, the people you pay to deliver your content aren’t content generators. In fact, all companies like Comcast and Dish Network have going for them is an infrastructure of cables and satellites. Therefore, not only does the consumer have to pay to have the content delivered, but also pay the content generators (networks such as ABC, NBC, and CBS) by watching ads during live broadcasts. This is the classic case of middleman syndrome; how would you feel if you weren’t allowed to enter Safeway, and instead were forced to buy groceries at a marked up price from a person that stood outside the store to take advantage of your misfortune?
Back in ancient times, before Tim Berners-Lee invented the Internet and everyone else realized it was cool, this method of content delivery was the best way to get content out to people. In the 1950s, the only infrastructure that existed was a bunch of broadcasting stations and normal people at home with receiving antennae. However, people realized that things like storms and concrete walls would seriously detriment their ability to receive television signals in the comfort of their living room. Thus was born the cable TV movement. Cable TV was really reliable for a long time. People paid for access to the pipes, and the pipes gave them access to the networks, which pushed their content out through the pipes. There was no better way to distribute content, because the Internet didn’t exist.
However, when broadband Internet came along, speeds were finally high enough for people to enjoy streaming video online. However, the problem was that cable TV providers were the ones that controlled the network infrastructure, because they were the ones that had laid down cable TV pipes years before. These cable TV providers didn’t want to just be pipes for consumers’ content, they wanted to be an integral part of the content delivery experience. Therefore, one of the most no-brainer ideas in the Internet today - the phasing out of traditional TV and the transition of TV channels into live streams on abc.com, nbc.com, and cbs.com - has been blocked over and over again. It just makes too much sense to phase out the middleman and either pay networks directly for add-free TV shows, or pay networks indirectly for traditional ad-supported content. This would apply to live TV as well; except the news anchors and sports commentators do need breaks, so perhaps ad-free live TV wouldn’t be offered (at least right away). Either way, you wouldn’t be paying Comcast for TV; they would be relegated to the role of a mere ISP, a dumb pipe you get your Internet from. They’d miss out on all those TV subscription fees.
One of the most popular discussion topics is “cord-cutting,” that is, canceling one’s cable TV subscription and instead relying on Internet services to make up the content void. One option is to pay about $3 for each episode through a service like iTunes. However, for a 20 episode season of a TV show, this can cost as much for one show as an cable TV subscription that includes many more shows. Yes, you don’t have to watch ads, but merely cutting ads out isn’t a good enough benefit for the extraordinary cost. The other option is a site like hulu.com, where you can stream episodes for an ad-supported price of free. The problem with both of these options, however, is that they only make new episodes and content available the day after it airs on traditional television. This is the cable companies’ pièce de résistance; it ensures that there’s an intrinsic value to having a cable TV subscription that can’t be replaced with a cord-cut solution. With this major restriction, live sports and live news, two major elements of television, are immediately shut out of the internet. In fact, only recently has it become possible to watch certain live sports online through watchespn.com; even here, until recently users had to authenticate with their cable provider logins to watch TV online.
This provides a great window into what the future of TV will be; we’ll still have giant screens in our living rooms, but instead of being hooked up to inefficient, controlling set top boxes, they’ll be hooked up to a house’s “central computer,” which will be able to pull both live TV broadcasts of a given channel and specific episodes of given shows from the Internet. This could potentially happen tomorrow; the technology already exists. All that remains is for TV networks to muster up the courage to present users with live TV streams of their channel; they already provide individual episodes ready for streaming.
Enter (or rather exit) Steve Jobs (sorry, too soon?). Apple’s TV coup would be to do to TV what they did to music: eliminate the middleman. If Apple could convince TV networks to stream live their channel’s current content, the mythical and recently much-discussed Apple TV would be able to access these streams and display them to the user. The users could say goodbye to their cable TV subscriptions and still watch the same TV as before. Just as Apple reduced the power of the record labels and gave it to the artists, Apple would reduce the power of Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and others like them and give that power to the content producers: ABC, NBC, CBS and all the other channels.
Hey, if anyone can do it, Apple can. Just as the dead hand of Hari Seldon pushed the Galactic Empire to the knees of the Foundation, so could the dead hand of Steve Jobs push TV into the future.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Identity on the Internet


The de facto standard for signing into any online service is now Facebook Connect. Take a site such as http://turntable.fm/. There is no way to sign on other than using a Facebook account. This is a far cry from the web of old, where people had to create a different username and password combination for each individual site they visited. These old systems hearken back to the classical Internet values of anonymity, independence, and individualism. The true nerds that used this brand new toy called the Internet to interact with one another, but in a manner possible only on the Internet. When anonymity was king, the limited degree to which the idea of identity on the internet was contained wholly within a user’s username or screen name. This inevitably led to situations such as those romanticized in the old-school 1998 flick “You’ve Got Mail”, in which Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan play two people who meet over the internet, but have no idea that they’re professional rivals in real life. Back then, the internet had a naiveté that it has since lost, a sort of trust among those that were online that they would all act to keep the Internet on the whole a friendly and informative place. On the other hand, if “You’ve Got Mail” was re-made today, Meg Ryan’s character would probably turn out to be a 40-year-old man living in his mother’s basement.
Why do people try to take advantage of the Internet? The obvious answer lies with money: once people realized that they had created the ultimate black market (think the Wild West sans sheriffs) they immediately began to capitalize. After the NSF legalized commercial enterprise on the Internet in 1995, just 5 years after Tim Berners-Lee wrote the first web browser, e-commerce took off, and with it a rebirth of the spam industry. Now, enterprising trolls could send out waves of emails to everyone telling them how to enlarge various body parts, and this activity wasn’t relegated to dark corners and dingy drugstores. On the Internet, nothing is dingy; the entire thing was created in parts by smart people trying to make their part of the Internet look better than everyone else’s. Anyone could whip up a professional-looking email campaign, set up a website to match, and watch the products roll out. Legitimate sites such as Amazon.com launched almost as soon as e-commerce became legal, but for every amazon.com there were a thousand dingy online drugstores with chrome refinishes.
        Answering this question with the cliché “follow the money!” answer, however, is an oversimplification that doesn’t consider one of the essential pieces of the Internet that shaped it: forums. Why would anyone try to deceive others on websites where the sole purpose is to talk to others? What’s the point? Enter trolling, or performing actions that have little to no personal benefit, but affect others adversely. The downside to all this anonymity on the Internet was that people could pretend to be something they weren’t, such as a prince looking to evacuate money from Nigeria (I just need a small down payment to cover transaction fees!) Anonymity takes all vestiges of accountability and throws it out the window; anyone can log onto any site and create any username they wished to create, whether it corresponded remotely with their identity or not. People can type things they wouldn’t dream of saying in face-to-face conversation because they’re protected by their obscurity. After a period of enduring hateful speech and cautiously avoiding the dark corners of the Internet, people got tired of trolls and invented forum moderation to block them. But the trolls’ accounts weren’t linked to the individuals, so trolls made new accounts and kept trolling. Thus began a never-ending and pointless war between moderators and trolls.
Even in cases where well-meaning people attempted to participate online, the username-password system became inadequate. The essential problem is that it’s near impossible to remember a unique username-password pair for each site, and it’s even harder to remember which username-password combination fits with each site. the solution for most people was to create a boilerplate username-password combination which they used on every site from online banking to commenting on Mary’s Foodie Blog. This created a gigantic security risk; if your username and password for Mary’s Foodie Blog become compromised, then suddenly there is a person out there with the power to zero out your bank account.
Then, the web changed when Facebook came along. Suddenly, there existed a widely-used service that forced people to use their real identities when they signed up (it is possible to create a Facebook account with a false name, but no one will friend you, effectively crowd-sourcing the real-name requirement). Then, people became able to use this Facebook login information to log on everywhere else, bringing us back to turntable.fm.
This idea of a Facebook logon for non-Facebook sites is more generally called identity federation. Identity Federation is a single-sign on technology where you can sign on to an identity provider (Facebook), which serves as a base for your online identity. Then, when you visit another site, that site can ask to identify you not through a username that you provide, but rather through the credentials that the identity provider gave you. You benefit from not having to remember a username and password, the site benefits because it can use your social connections on Facebook to enhance the site experience, and Facebook benefits because you now rely on it to prove who you are online. This idea of identity federation is probably best demonstrated with the Disqus commenting system. Disqus lets you log on by presenting any one of a number of identity providers, then lets you post your comment. When you’re forced to reveal your identity in a comment, comments immediately become more civil, because trolling comments will affect the reputation of not only that account name, but the actual poster themselves.

The problem with this new system arises when you try to control how much information each logon distributes by the sites that depend on identity providers. A basic guideline of identity federation is that no extra information should be distributed; the site requesting identity verification should be satisfied when Facebook Connect hands over your name, and not try for your list of personal preferences, too. Sadly, identity providers don’t operate their service out of the goodness in their hearts; advertisers will pay top dollar to launch targeted ad campaigns that are tailor-fit to the individual characteristics of people. While it’s easier to protect your information from thieves, it’s now harder to protect that same information from advertisers.
What is needed is a good balance; a way to make sure online activities are safe and secure but also a way to protect privacy concerns online. The Internet was a child before; after Facebook and Twitter it became a teenager. What kind of adult the Internet will be remains not only to be seen, but to be done.